By RON HAYES
Palms West Monthly
Posted Dec. 30, 2016
WEST PALM BEACH — He’d died so many times before, only to rise again from the rumors, that when the news arrived from Cuba early on Nov. 25, many in South Florida’s exile community were doubtful.
“Ah, I wonder if it’s true this time,” Juan Rubio thought when his wife, Dina Rubio, showed him the report on her phone that Saturday morning. “And then I went to get my phone and I had 17 missed calls.”
Fidel Castro was 90, and had led the Caribbean nation of 11 million people for nearly 50 years, outlasting 11 U.S. Presidents, ruling longer than any living leader except Queen Elizabeth II.
Now the revolutionary guerrilla fighter who overthrew one Cuban dictator in January 1959, promising democracy, only to become a dictator himself, was gone at last.
Let the celebrations begin.
In Miami, thousands gathered peacefully along 8th Street in the heart of Little Havana, waving Cuban and U.S. flags, banging spoons against pots and pans, honking horns and cheering with joy.
“Cuba si! Castro no!” they chanted. “Cuba libre!”
But for Rubio, 53, of West Palm Beach, the news was bittersweet.
“It’s good,” he says, “but I had mixed feelings. You could never repair the damage he’s done to my family, all those other families and the country. Cuba is absolutely destroyed. The buildings, the roads. And the worst is what he did to Cuban society.”
Born in Aguacate, Cuba, Rubio was only 3 months old when his father was arrested and sent to prison.
“My family had supported Castro,” he says, “but they knew my father was not a Castro guy after he saw things were changing to communism.”
The family owned a grocery store and gas station, and Rubio’s father was accused of giving money to the rebels fighting the Castro regime and hiding fighters in his store.
“It was a one-day deal,” Rubio says. “He didn’t have a defense lawyer. Just about everyone in that little town was arrested when Castro started nationalizing the businesses.”
Nine years later, Rubio’s father was freed from prison, and in 1979 the family arrived in Miami, when Rubio was 16.
“May 30, 1979,” he says. “I’ll never forget that date. My mom, dad, brother and grandmother. We flew from Havana to Jamaica, and then the same day from Kingston to Miami.”
In 1990, when Ramon Vilarino opened his first Don Ramon Cuban Cuisine on South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, Rubio played keyboards and guitar in the fellow exile’s restaurant. Today he and Dina own it.
“America’s been good to me,” he says. “This is the best country in the world.”
In America, the memories of those exiles who fled Castro’s communism shape their sons and daughters.
Roger Roque, 45, wasn’t born in Cuba, but Cuba has been a part of him since he was born.
“My parents came here about 1963,” he says. “They were still young, hadn’t even started high school yet, so they graduated from Jackson High School in Miami, and I was born in 1971.”
Growing up, Cuba hovered like a ghost at the edge of his awareness, a memory of a place for which he could have no memory.
When the adults gathered, he heard their conversations.
“Do you remember back in Cuba when …” he heard his parents and their friends reminisce. And then, “If it wasn’t for that SOB who took away our land …”
In family lore, Roque’s paternal grandmother had ties to Jose Marti, the 19th Century Cuban hero who agitated for the island’s independence from Spain.
“Her family was very well off,” Roque says. “A lot of land, big homes. They had sugar cane. And she came here from that kind of life to living in a 900-square-foot home in Miami for the rest of her life. But she was happy because she knew what she had here was more important.”
She died in 2011, with Castro still in power. In 1985, Roque’s family came to West Palm Beach, where he graduated high school. For the past nine years, he’s owned the Kayak King WaterSports concession in Okeeheelee Park.
“I’ve done very well in America,” he says. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
He and his wife were in an Orlando hotel that Saturday morning, attending a wedding, when they turned on the television.
“Nobody of decency wants to see somebody die,” he says, “but if you know the history, and people who lost everything, and the number of people who were killed, you can’t help but have wished death upon him.”
And now that wish has come to pass. Fidel Castro is dead, and Roque could finally visit the island that’s been a part of his life for 45 years. But Castro’s brother, Raul, rules Cuba now, and the Cuban regime did not die with its founder.
“I would visit Cuba if I knew that whatever I’m dropping in that country, part of it is going to the people,” he says. “But while the government keeps all the money and only a bone goes down to the people, I’ll probably never contribute to their economy.”
Rubio has been back once, in 1996, to visit a family who had helped his mother raise him while his father was imprisoned.
“The damage he’s done to Cuba in general, and the families, it will take years and years to repair,” he says. “It will end. Raul is going to die soon, because you can’t live forever, but it will take a few years.”
Until then, the exodus of Cubans risking their lives to find what Rubio and Roque have found here continues.
In 2015, the number of Cuban refugees attempting to migrate over the Florida Straits was 4,473, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
For this fiscal year ending Sept. 30, that number was 7,411.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Pictured above: Banging pots and pans and waving Cuban and American flags, members of the Cuban community react to the death of Fidel Castro, Saturday, Nov. 26, in the Little Havana area in Miami. Castro, who led a rebel army to improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 U.S. presidents during his half century rule, died at age 90. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee